A Backup on the Kościuszko

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

The most interesting character in Nancy Keystone's epic Ameryka never takes the stage.

That's impressive because across the show's three hours and roughly 250 years, we meet some fascinating people: Polish General Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Thomas Jefferson, Lech Walesa, jazz musicians, CIA spies, polish artists . . . and that's just the short list.

The narrative challenge of Ameryka, with a Polish "y", is to explore the connection between Polish and American history. If you walked into the theater with the burning question, "how are America and Poland connected since the revolutionary war?" You're all set. My guess is that wasn't top of your mind -- because maybe there is no such connection. So why should we care?

At its best Ameryka is a bit like travelling to a foreign country where you discover what you love about home. You meet a Polish General who fought alongside our founding fathers and had a view of liberty and freedom that put Thomas Jefferson to shame. You meet a black Jazz musician who finds in Poland a freedom and respect he can only dream of during the civil rights era at home. The play bounces back and forth across time and from Poland at the birth of Solidarity to America during the revolutionary war.

The arc that's created from these short scenes is far from the traditional linear narrative. Instead, we're exploring and building meaning through accumulation and coincidence. It's a bit like a treasure hunt mixed with the notes for a dissertation.

All of this leads us back to that most interesting character: the director and playwright, herself, Nancy Keystone.

Ms. Keystone is not using the theater in the ways we're accustomed to - to tell a simple story that we already know. Instead, she's using it as a tool for discovery -- theater as a way of uncovering or grappling with a deeper truth. Together with her company, Critical Mass Performance Group, she crafts her epics over many years instead of many weeks. Ameryka is the product of multiple workshops where the play took shape through repetition and exploration, a bit like a collage that reveals itself through time.

The intriguing America that's revealed is not the one seen through imagined Polish eyes, but the America that Nancy Keystone is grappling with through her work. It's an America she explored in her earlier epic Apollo that mixed the promise of the moonshot, the history of Nazi rocket scientists, and Civil Rights. While we've shifted locales, the subject of her work is still this imagined and real America. An America that is simultaneously noble and disingenuous; one built on a profound promise that it seems to constantly be breaking.

If you're looking for a tidy narrative, this one's not for you. If on the other hand you're interested in exploring a messy idea with artistic gusto, Ameryka is a remarkable journey.

Ameryka plays downtown at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles through March 6.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: three hours with one intermission.

Photo: Patti McGuire